Sigrid Sanders
What Have We Got To Lose?

On a warm summer morning in Oconee County, Georgia - about an hour's drive east of Atlanta - traffic streamed along a once-rural road, now heavily traveled and busy with gas stations, convenience stores and subdivisions. Along one stretch of the road, men with chain saws and a bulldozer had begun to clear a remaining patch of woods, a fairly large area of hardwoods mixed with a few pines. Many trees already had fallen and some had been pushed into rough piles, leaving the red-dirt hillside looking raw and strangely open.

On a branch of a tall scraggly pine still standing on the edge of the road, sat a Barred Owl, in full daylight, while trucks and cars and vans passed below it and the bulldozer rumbled and clouds of red dust rose and hung in the air. The owl - rather stocky, with brown, streaked plumage, a round head and dark round eyes - didn't appear to be hurt, but it did appear disoriented by the sudden destruction of the woods that may have been its home.

Ordinarily, a Barred Owl would have spent the day hidden in the deep shade of the woods, and when it came out at night, it would have moved with a predator's confident grace, on broad, silent wings. It would have called in a voice that carried through the dark woods - who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-ow-you-ow - loud, distinctive and proud. Now, in the harshly open light of day, the owl looked painfully vulnerable and out of place.

It happens every day, and the scene is a familiar one for all of us who live in this area. Another patch of woods pushed down; another road or subdivision or superstore taking its place - except that we rarely see the displaced owl. Or the scattered songbirds, woodpeckers, bobcats, beavers, salamanders, wildflowers, mushrooms and myriad other wild animals and plants that depend on these woods for a home.

The woodland culture that's being destroyed is largely invisible to most of us who live here. We only see the loss of the trees, and although we may regret that loss or even feel angry, we don't really know what we're losing. Many, if not most of us, know less about our own Southern woods than we know about the rainforests of South America or the plains of Africa. And what we do not know is a crucial factor contributing to the loss of these woods. If we're not familiar with what's there, we're not likely to fight very hard to protect it.

The Southern woods are all around us - not the somewhat protected woods of national forests or parks or nature centers, but the ordinary woods that spring up anywhere they're given half a chance. Like unobtrusive background music, they're always there, but seldom noticed - they spread across old farm fields, over acres and acres of land once planted in cotton, in back yards, along rivers and creeks, beyond pastures, beside highways. They set the mood, they shape and color the landscape, they define our horizons. We take them for granted and think of them as ordinary and common - but we don't really know them. We generally don't think these woods are likely to be especially interesting because they're not a wilderness, they're far from pristine. We know they've been diminished from centuries of human use and abuse, and may think they are, therefore, less deserving of our interest or protection.

But the ordinary Southern woods all around us, though not wilderness, are still wild. They still provide a rich habitat and a refuge for wildlife. Right now, in the woods in Oconee County, you can still hear the call of a barred owl, the incomparably beautiful song of a wood thrush, the exotic chuckle of a yellow-billed cuckoo, or the scream of a bobcat in the night. You can still see, if you're patient and lucky, the bushy red tail of a fox, the nest of a red-shouldered hawk, the filmy pink of a wild azalea, the burnished plumage and fierce yellow eye of a green heron stalking dragonflies in a wetland. These and many other fascinating wild animals and plants still live in the ordinary Southern woods and go about their lives without our notice, for the most part.

But if the woods they depend on continue to be cut down and replaced by asphalt and streetlights and storefronts and lawns, it won't be long at all before these things live only in the stories from the past we tell our children's children.